This winter has proved to be a ‘nightmare’ for The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group owl team. Not only has it been difficult to find dry days to undertake the box maintenance but so heavy has been the rainfall that the countryside has been a quagmire to negotiate.
Every location presented the same waterlogged terrain to overcome.
With the target to complete by the end of February so that owls can begin mating the pressure on the team has been intense. It has meant grabbing every dry opportunity at short notice and on some occasions meant working up to three days a week.
Boots were quickly overwhelmed by the flooded conditions.
We are fortunate to have dedicated volunteers to undertake this work who put the welfare of the owls as a very high priority in their lives. Without this dedication our breeding success would have been minimal and the survival of the local owl population would return to being very fragile.
The resulting wet mud quickly spread to clothing.
When beginning this work we were faced with the daunting task of transporting all the maintenance equipment required over countless fields that were so wet that it was difficult to stand up let alone walk. Due to these unprecedented conditions we had the added complication that we were unable to get our vehicles as close as we normally try to in order to reduce the distance we are required to walk.
Tools and equipment were gathered to mount on a purpose-built ladder trolley at the start of each expedition.
Once the ladder was tied on all equipment was placed on it.
When fully loaded we braced ourselves for the journey across the uneven slippery terrain.
Just holding it in position to start the journey was challenging.
On this occasion the ground was found to be too treacherous and uneven so the trolley reluctantly had to be abandoned.
Everything had instead to be physically carried over the flooded ground balanced on ladder sections.
Our clothes were damp and mud splattered up to our waists and with muddy boots climbing ladders when a location was reached, each rung became clogged with wet mud which further spread the sticky soil to our arms and chests. We quickly assumed an appearance more resembling mud wrestlers than owl box maintenance volunteers.
Each location presented us with difficulties that could be associated with running a marathon over an army assault course. As we progressed across expanses of waterlogged countryside manhandling the very weighty items required to maintain each box, we found our slipping feet were accumulating huge amounts of heavy wet mud which made walking feel as if we had lead weights attached to our boots.
This obviously slowed our progress to a crawl in most cases and expended huge amounts of energy to achieve. This had an impact on the number of boxes we were able to maintain on each day as the gruelling effort and slow pace took its toll.
Our plight however, rather than put us off from our task seemed to strengthen our resolve, and we even managed to laugh at the ridiculously severe conditions on occasions. Any laughter though, was often accompanied by some exasperated utterances when faced with each new difficulty. With the team being long established it works well and individual members slot into well-established methods of team working even when faced with such adverse conditions. It is this spirit and determination that has to date managed to cope with all adversity that has beset us with this annual task.
Some of the distances were so lengthy to carry the equipment that it felt like a day’s work had been completed before we reached the first box.
This spirit was tested on one occasion when we had needed to carry our ladder-loaded equipment over an extremely wet and difficult field which very nearly exhausted us. On arrival at the boxes we began our cleaning, repairing and painting only to be quickly interrupted by one of the most prolonged and vicious hail-storms we have experienced. We had no choice but to immediately pack up our equipment and retrace our difficult journey back to our vehicles as quickly as was humanly possible. So heavy was the downpour which further added to the already waterlogged ground conditions, that it was weeks before we were able to return to complete the job.
When boxes were reached the maintenance work commenced.
Any damage was repaired and all boxes cleaned out and painted.
The locations were left in a condition deemed to make box occupancy as attractive to the barn owls as possible.
The year generally has been one of the worst we have encountered in terms of numbers of roosting barn owls found. Some years we have found roosting barn owls in almost every location. This year the total number was only 7 which out of 42 boxes is very poor and has to be the result of the amount of rainfall that had fallen almost ceaselessly since September last year. Farmers hadn’t been able to plant their crops in their wet fields and voles, shrews and mice were not flourishing as normal as a result of the wet conditions. If there are no prey species to catch the owl populations suffer a decline. This has been the wettest year on record so far and we fear it will impact on this year’s breeding owl numbers considerably.
This box had been knocked to the ground by wind and falling branches. Fortunately the damage wasn’t severe and it was quickly remounted.
The few owls we have found in boxes have on most occasions been lone ones with the boxes showing a reduction in the number of fresh owl pellets they have accumulated around them. This further indicates a shortage of prey to feed upon which will surely impact on their breeding prospects as they tend not to produce young if food is in short supply. Unless conditions rapidly change this is the feared outcome for the coming season.
The occupants we did encounter were a welcome sight.
However quietly we approached their sensitive hearing detected us…
…and they glided away across the fields to temporarily roost in nearby trees…
…where they waited until our work had finished.
When their roost renovation had been completed they returned to the refurbished boxes to once again benefit from the welcome shelter they provide.
During our maintenance tour we also serviced some of the remaining tawny owl boxes that had survived the grey squirrel onslaught that has inflicted so much damage in recent years. We found this damage to be continuing and were forced to remove another 3 tawny owl boxes which were considered a waste of time to continue with further repairs on.
This was one of the remaining few to have escaped the squirrel damage.
With the barn owl boxes and tawny owl boxes combined, the total number of boxes maintained this year numbered 50 in total.
Despite all our difficulty this winter we somehow managed to finish on time in readiness for the owl breeding season but the relief felt after such effort was considerable.